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How About a Holistic Approach to Housing our Homeless

ACCORDING TO LIZ - As the issue of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles moves from being a dirty secret out into a major humanitarian crisis, many more proposals are being suggested and a slew of taxpayer money thrown at the problem. 

However, most of these appear to be either irresponsibly idealistic or crass attempts at profiting by leveraging the suffering of the City’s unhoused population for developer gain. 

On the idealistic side is the Mayor’s “Inside Safe” program where certain community groups have convinced Karen Bass that 95% of the people living on the streets will voluntarily agree to move into motels and hotels. Sounds great, but we’ve heard this all before and, absent police sweeps or threats of arrest and the removal of their belongings, it hasn’t worked in the past. 

Eight months ago, a study by the Rand Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles said differently with less than one third willing to move into a group shelter or a recovery or sober living housing. Upping the ante to private accommodation reduced the number of those who wished to stay on the street but the cost of construction based would exceed $20 billion. Two other research groups, the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the California Housing Partnership, figured California would need to spend about $100 billion to eradicate the scourge of homelessness by 2035. 

Yummy money. 

And, in promoting her program, Mayor Bass has clearly bought into one particular solution, one that relies squarely on the mistakenbelief that the real issue is a lack of housing. A lack that she thinks can be overcome by handing over taxpayer dollars and waiving regulations that exist to protect the populace. 

A mistaken belief of “everywhere all at once” that developers and those beholden to them, have worked very hard to cultivate and maintain so they can drown out all other voices and continue basking as beneficiaries of City Hall largesse. 

But, neither regulation reduction nor feeding the developer profit machine will help Angelenos whose taxes will be diverted from the services the City should be providing them in order to ravage their streets, destroy their neighborhoods and let City Hall lobbyists roll in the green while homelessness encampments, sidewalk shelters and panhandling continue unabated. 

People in Los Angeles do not need more housing built. They don’t need densification and they certainly don’t need what is really driving up costs – commodification and the resultant gentrification. 

They need homes for the people looking for a roof over their family’s heads, not investors in REITs or the upwardly mobile looking at an address as temporary asset to parlay into one more valuable. 

Investors who are betting the market will continue to go up and up thus justifying the risk only of a down payment, perhaps not even to live in or to rent out but to hold on to until the next real estate growth spurt. Pure speculation, resulting in… no homes for the homeless. 

And also drives developers to build almost exclusively for the highest net-worth individuals so they can skim the largest possible profits from their investments. Investments in land and construction and, yes, in payoffs at City Hall. 

People here and across the country need the education and jobs and better pay to afford all the empty units already on the market. They need healthcare and childcare so they don’t live one bill away from eviction. 

People here and across the country need all levels of government to step in and stop the commodification of the right to have a decent home. 

On the national level, earlier this month Jamaal Bowman and Elizabeth Warren sent President Biden an open letter signed by 50 members of the House and Senate stressing that soaring rent prices are impacting millions of Americans, and he should use executive action to: 

“pursue all possible strategies to end corporate price gouging in the real estate sector and ensure that renters and people experiencing homelessness across this country are stably housed…” 

Across the country median rents have increased 31% while home prices have soared 48%. The General Accountability Office determined that every $100 increase in median rent is associated with a 9% rise in homelessness. Here these statistics are almost certainly far worse. 

“In a country where increases in rental costs have far outpaced wage growth, it is clear that these heightened costs and acts of corporate profiteering are exacerbating an already-existing crisis of housing unaffordability and instability. 

“…we must pursue all options on the table that will help renters stay housed in the short-term, while also continuing to collaborate on efforts to realize long-term investments in our nation’s affordable housing supply….” 

In a statement released later, Senator Warren called on the Biden administration to adopt a whole-of-government approach to address the housing crisis in America.

Here, members of the U.S. Congress are throwing the Mayor a life preserver and she needs to grab hold and become an enthusiastic advocate for making it happen. 

What resources to help Angelenos in desperate need of affordable housing can she mine from embracing such an approach? What innovations can she learn from other parts of the country that are also addressing shortages of affordable housing? 

Karen Bass is facing a compendium of problems far more complicated than boxing one person in one unit, and it requires an approach that is both holistic and systemic to resolve it now and prevent a reinfection. 

She should be in Washington right now, linking up with Bernie Sanders’ Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, working with those who signed the Bowman/Warren letter to Biden, and asking how she can help promote whole-of-government legislation, not acting as a shill for California developers who already have their hooks deep into Toni Atkins and Scott Weiner and too many other Sacramento politicians.                                                                                                                                           

With a more holistic approach, the numbers of homeless needing significant services due to addictions and PTSD would be more manageable, and those who lost their homes due to evictions and bankruptcies would not have descended into the depths of a skid row existence. 

How about renting existing vacant units – estimates that range from 93,000 (more than twice the number of unsheltered people on our streets) to over 250,000? Surely this would provide far more immediate housing and, even at close to market rate, at cost a lot far less to the taxpayer in the long run. 

Oh, but it doesn’t help the developers’ bottom lines? And after all the money they’ve invested in City Hall and Sacramento? Tough luck. 

First, the Mayor needs to start pushing back on rampant construction to stop evictions and protect existing housing from disruptions due to increased water, sewer, road repair and power demands that adding multiple units would cause to our already shaky infrastructure. 

She needs to call out all those fine folks who are already notorious for breaking existing regulations on tree removal, road obstruction, size restrictions, parking requirements and fine the dickens out of them. And ban any developer and affiliates from all future City contracts. 

She needs to aggressively act on the fact that the loss of reasonably-priced accommodation in Los Angeles goes back at least twenty years with forced removal of tenants from affordable housing and the deliberate destruction of RSO units; that if the City had acted in 2015, we would not have people now living on the streets, in their vehicles, and couch surfing. 

The new wave of destroying existing affordable housing as mandated by the state and accepted unquestioningly by our City Council to build quadruplexes must be put on hold and a more humanistic plan devised. 

Those being evicted will never be able to afford these new units so the Atkins/Weiner scheme will only create more homeless to populate our streets. And more profits for the developers. 

In fact, a majority of projects under construction are classified as luxury intended to produce higher profits and, at an average rent of $2,800 per month, could never be considered affordable for median income-earners let alone those currently unhoused. 

Next, the Mayor needs to do her research. She and other well-meaning groups like the Livable Communities Initiative with optimistic concepts and pretty plans that want to impose their perceived solutions from above have little understanding of how the City got into the mess that it’s in today. 

Are most of them the bums we see portrayed on TV hungry for a hand-out? 

Nope. They are women and children, seniors and war vets. Some may have made bad choices but they are not bad people. Many have jobs, often two or three, but life hasn’t given them the same breaks as those who live in Bel Air mansions and DTLA luxury lofts. 

They need effective education, good healthcare, basic skills and support to help turn their lives around. 

So, before making any decisions, how about checking out why these people lost their homes in the first place? 

What about the fact that even with two or more working adults holding down multiple jobs, many Angelenos can’t afford rent or mortgages? 

Many, even those currently housed, try really hard but the capitalist economy is stacked against them. Most Americans are one paycheck short of bankruptcy – whether due to medical costs, a car repair or a layoff. 

How many landlords will greenlight tenants with a bankruptcy blotting their credit report? 

Los Angeles does not need more houses and apartments, at least ones most people on a median income can never, in their wildest dreams, afford. 

And how does she plan to address the pollution and climate change inherent in such construction? 

And what to do with the challenges of the old-timer homeless population, folks who have lived rough for decades? Who don’t want meds and reject assistance, and who are perfectly happy with what they have now? 

We need a new and improved Karen Bass plan that targets changing the lives of the homeless, permanently for the better. 

It will be messy; it won’t be perfect or even satisfactory for many of the conflicting points of view. But that’s life. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try our best.

However – 

We need to stop developers buying up property in places like Boyle Heights and Highland Park which then forces prices throughout the area up pushing more people out of their homes. 

We need to stop the waiver of regulations, including gutting CEQA provisions. Regulation may slow construction and limit developer profit but it also slows community destruction and protects people living in every district. And their health. 

We do not need construction projects crammed into communities across Los Angeles causing environmental and structural damage that cannot be undone. 

Karen Bass may have promised the electorate quick fixes but everyone knew this was too complex a problem to go gently into that good night. 

People have been leaving Los Angeles and California in droves over the past three years. Where are those houses? Businesses folded. Others went to remote work leaving manufacturing and office spaces empty. 

How about investigating the conversion of commercial real estate to short-term housing using buy-in from the owner-landlords? 

We should be looking at (which doesn't mean as much profit for developers and land roulette players) converting now unneeded office space and other empty buildings into housing with services such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has done, repurposing units at $102,000 per unit instead of the comparatively meager numbers of $600,000 units produced with our tax dollars under City Prop HHH and County Measure H. 

We need to stop moving the homeless around like sacks of garbage and give them what THEY want, WHERE they want it at a price THEY can afford. Which includes places they don't have to leave during the day, where they can lock up their belongings when they go out, and where their pets are welcome. 

Which includes treating them with the respect they deserve.

 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)